Celine Song’s cinematic debut, the miraculously bittersweet Past Lives, opens with a painful exterior perspective in a New York bar. An outward set of eyes attempts to discern the relationship between two Koreans of the opposite sex and an American man, rotating through an assortment of possibilities, wherein a frayed interracial relationship exists, or if the American is simply a third-wheeling tour guide. It’s all underpinned by a delicate zoom that patiently locks in on the protagonist’s conflicted visage, cleaved between two men and herself. It’s an exquisite capsule of our tendency to disregard all the “what-ifs”, closed doors, and past lives that have led strangers to the same places as us.
It’s the perfect small opening for a perfect small movie, an epic-in-miniature that spans generations, continents, and relationships with a transportive touch. Enveloping and immersing viewers into its transcendent tidal wave with pure emotive force, it manifests as a languid but hypnotic stream that’s driven, in an existential sense, by the nature of possibilities. Each life choice means taking one path towards an uncertain future and disregarding another, the gravity of which is only felt years, even decades, later. As we age, the vestiges of those overlooked paths twinkle in the void of our memory, like spectres of all the other lives that could have been and the people we could have been with.
While many films have observed and interrogated such wistful anamnesis—including the best picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once—Song distills these emotions into something so stunningly simple and truly astonishing, intertwining it with the spiritual Korean concept of Inyeon. Inyeon posits that we are the sum of the past lives we’ve led and our connections to our friends, partners, and family are all a result of it. The totality of what we are to one another in this life will shape what becomes of the next.
This cosmic cobweb of connection is at the heart of Past Lives. What could have been explored in such a trite, exaggerated fashion is so subtly delivered. The film soars to breathtaking heights during its romantic intervals all the while rigorously evading melodrama at each turn— a beautifully understated masterwork that never fails to rouse hyperbolic emotions from its audience.
Its story, which leaps forwards in 12-year increments, finds that time has both stood still and radically changed. Nora (Greta Lee, sparkling with great dramatic range) emigrates from Seoul to Toronto and then finally to New York City in the hopes of becoming a writer. Her childhood friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, a reserved delight) serves his mandatory military service and fondly remembers her. With the help of the internet, the two reconnect and begin a relationship over webcam. These moments are achingly realized by Song’s subdued direction, gorgeously tapping into the pain of modernity with each buffering, frozen frame, and low-quality Skype as their threadbare connection— magnificently intercut between opposing skylines—struggles to persist.
A lesser film would have then transformed into a pleasant romantic comedy, but Song understands the cold, detached nature of time and its ability to draw people apart. Past Lives chooses to grow with its characters into their mid-30s when their routes begin to take on a more defined shape. When Nora and Hae Sung reconnect again—this time with the addition of Nora’s distinctly white American Husband Arthur (John Magaro, in a career-best turn) — the dying vestiges of their overlooked paths begin to twinkle the brightest, as they come to embrace the beauty of what is and what could have been.
This familiar tale of childhood sweethearts reconnecting in spite of an obstacle feels distinctly realized and wholly lived-in, forgoing any inclination of a storybook ending. Instead, the characters here discuss life and purpose with both unabashed candour and an implicit lyricism, with both sorrow and joy. Hae Sung and Nora are the right people for each other at the wrong time, but Song refuses to view them as a sad story, instead injecting their connection with an energy that sits perfectly between heartbreaking and uplifting.
The film’s sublime visual language is one of parallels and dichotomies, employing slicing symmetrical motifs that powerfully reinforce the film’s transcendental take on fate and destiny. It fixates on the tiny spaces between Nora and Hae Sung, and the diverting paths that lay before them. As much as the film relies on dialogue, it’s also powered by a palpable sense of silence and absence, which Song’s theatrical blocking beautifully captures— purposefully drawing her characters closer to each other and cutting some out of the frame entirely. Song’s background in theatre pays dividends, creating unforgettable moments that directly peer into the human condition with succinct profundity, uncovering a rich commentary on reincarnation that is sure to capture the hearts and minds of the spiritual and secular alike.
Shabier Kirchner’s gentle, cascading camerawork luxuriates in the slow, careful buildup of meaningful conversation. It glides through verdant paths, silent rooms, and shimmering cityscapes with a painterly lens. The camera drifts along to its own beat, focusing on its subjects as if by chance, caught in contemplation as it takes us through familiar landmarks with a wholly new perspective. It affords the rustle of leaves, the ripple of water, and the iridescent glow of New York with a newfound grace. Coupled with Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s Ghibli-esque score of warm acoustics and pianos, it becomes all too easy to get lost in the film’s quiet, pensive riptide.
Past Lives is a sonic-visual feast in the service of a deeply moving, revelatory treatise on subtle human truths. Its bittersweet beauty is a rare feat, and it’s easily one of the best films of the year, if not, the best. Celine Song’s picture-perfect debut allows us to cherish the reality of this life as a gift, one that is just as beautiful as all the other infinite lives we could have had. All any of us can do is embrace the people we have now, and fondly recall (and ultimately let go of) the ones we could have had.
Past Lives releases in theaters on June 2nd.